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Chatting with your deceased relatives: AI’s next frontier?


Warner Bros

Daniel Esparza - published on 02/20/23

Pope Francis notes how the borders between what is “natural,” “artificial,” “biological,” and “technological” seem to blur, but discredits the idea of an "augmented human."

Immortality is one of mankind’s chimeric dreams. The second-best thing seems to be now somehow in the horizon.Artur Sychov, CEO of Somnium Space (a metaverse platform that belongs to Meta) claims that AI will soon be able to provide us with digital “living” avatars of our deceased relatives and loved ones.

In an interview with VICE, Sychov explained that the arrival of OpenAI’s ChatGPT and other popular artificial intelligences is rushing the development of new technologies, including those that would make “immortality” somewhat possible by uploading a digital version of ourselves (a personal AI) to a metaverse.

Somnium Space’s project is called (provocatively enough) “Live Forever.” The idea is rather simple: creating digital AI versions of our loved ones by gathering all sorts of personal data so that the person can “live forever” once uploaded to the company’s metaverse servers.

“If I die,” Sychov explained, “after my data is collected […] my children can come and have a conversation with my avatar, who moves and talks like I do […] That’s the goal.”

In a recent article, Maxwell Strachan explains that Sychov was inspired to develop “Live Forever” mode after his father died. Back in 2022, Sychov thought the technology would be available within five years. Now, Strachan goes on, “due to recent advancements in artificial intelligence, he expects it could only take a couple more years before people can have a conversation with a virtual reality robot without realizing that it is an AI and not a real person.”

Redefining human relationships?

As he received the members of the Pontifical Academy for Life in their 28th General Assembly this February 2o, 2023, Pope Francis warned that “technology cannot substitute human contact” and explained that the concept of an “augmented humanity” reduces the human to its mere biological dimension.

Reducing the human person to data, one could infer, reduces the human to what is measurable.

In a speech commonly referred to as Ratzinger’s conference on Fatherhood and Apocalypse delivered in March 2000, the then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger made a similar claim, noting that God’s antagonist, the Beast, is the only character in the Bible who doesn’t have a name, but a number. In biblical revelation, the watchful presence of God reveals itself with a name and, one might even argue, in name.

This mode of revelation, Ratzinger argues, signifies God’s desire to be addressed, to enter into communion. God’s antagonist, “this Beast,” Ratzinger explains in the same conference, “does not have a name, but a number […] The Beast is a number and transforms into numbers.”

Some authors have read this as Ratzinger’s critique of instrumental reason. The then-cardinal was clearly referring to the experience of the concentration camps, but also to the risks of understanding the human in terms of mere bio-mechanical functions

Noting the always-accelerating pace of the ongoing technological race, and somehow echoing Ratzinger’s words, Pope Francis expressed concern about the “effects that are not always clear and predictable” and the “significant changes” these developments can bring to our current living conditions.

He particularly stressed “the impact that these new technologies have on how we define the ‘human’ and the idea of ‘relationship.’” As the borders between what is “natural,” “artificial,” “biological,” and “technological” seem to blur, “the criteria for discernment on man and technology are becoming ever more difficult,” he told the scholars.

In his speech, the Pope criticized the notion of an “augmented human,” referring to a series of technological developments that aim at the improvement of our biological functions.

The human body, the Pontiff claimed, “is not just a biological organism alone […] thinking that is the case does not “augment” but rather “shrinks” (“compresses”) the human.”

Asking the scholars to focus on the value of the human, he concluded by claiming that “the virtual cannot replace the real, and that social networks cannot substitute our socially shared world.”

Pope FrancisTechnology
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